Fake News and the Cognitive Fact Checker

Cognitive Fact Checker

By Vint Cerf

Digital technology has drastically impacted our lives. Beyond this new threshold of interconnectedness, we should consider digital technology’s impact on citizenship and the very nature of democracy in the future. When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1436, he knew it would ease the labor of monks who spent all day manually copying the Bible.  But he probably didn’t think it would fuel colonization of the New World, or enable representative democracy via mass produced written correspondence that could reach an entire population that could share a common information base. Imagine the difficulties of lobbying, holding elections, and organizing political parties without this capability. No longer would information be controlled by masters of Kingdoms or Fiefdoms.  

On to broadcast media. Whether ABC, NBC or CBS, the world had gatekeepers and the Fourth Estate as guardians of our sources of factual information. To wit, Walter Cronkite, an example of American broadcast journalism, was known for his investigative journalism, fulfilling his watchdog role, and for his matter-of-fact way of delivering the news as a CBS anchor.

But wait, now the Internet has given rise to Digital Fiefdoms whose masters use fear tactics to make entire populations feel disempowered. (ISIS is an example of a fiefdom dependent on the Internet). 

“When you feel disempowered, you want to strike back with everything you've got, and you feel like the whole world is against you,” says Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Snopes, a fact-checking website that has debunked many of the false stories circulating around the internet. “People who think they’ve been pushed out of the political world as it is right now are going to be susceptible to misinformation – they’re going to focus on whatever makes them feel better,” she says.

In June 2016, the U.K. held a referendum on its membership in the European Union. In November 2016, the U.S. held its national elections. In the run-up to both of these important decisional events, the Internet with its burgeoning collection of "information" dissemination applications, influenced the decisions of voters. The disturbing aspect of these (and many other decisional events) is the quantity of poor-quality content, the production of deliberately fake news, false information, alt-facts and the reinforcement of bad information through the social media.

One reaction to bad information is to remove it. That's sometimes called censorship although it may also be considered a responsible act in accordance with appropriate use policies of the entities that support information dissemination and exchange. A different reaction is to provide more information to allow viewers/readers to decide for themselves what to accept or reject. Another reaction is to provide countervailing information (fact checking) to help inform the public. Yet another reaction is simply to ignore anything that you reject as counter to your worldview. That may lead to so-called echo chamber effects where the only information you really absorb is that which is consistent with your views, facts notwithstanding.

The wealth (I use this word gingerly) of information found on the Internet is seemingly limitless. On the other hand, it is of such uneven quality that some of us feel compelled to exercise due diligence before accepting anything in particular. That calls for critical thinking and, as I have written in the past, this is something that not everyone is prepared to or willing to expend energy on. That is not a good sign. A society that operates on the basis of bad or biased information may soon find itself in difficulties because decisions are being made on shaky ground.

Unfortunately, we don't seem to be able to guarantee that decision makers, including voters, will apply critical thinking, due diligence, and fact checking before making decisions or propagating and reinforcing bad quality or deliberately counterfactual information. While the problem is more recognized now than ever, the proper response is far from agreed upon. It may even prove necessary to experiment with various alternatives. For example, rumors propagate rapidly through social media and recipients need tools to debunk them. The SNOPES (www.snopes.com) and Pulitzer prize winning Politifact (www.politifact.com) websites provide information to expose false rumors, fake news and alt-facts, or to confirm them using factual information and analysis. 

We can use more of this.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is calling for governments to launch a public information campaign to fight the scourge of fake news, which is “killing people’s minds.” Apple recently joined the multi-company Partnership on AI to Benefit People and Society (www.partnershiponai.org), and we can look to that organization for a huge impact on countering fake news. In addition, let’s look to IEEE’s initiativePrioritizing Human Wellbeing with Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems.

Of course, in many cases, the situation is not clear-cut and differences of opinion illustrate that there can be conflicting views of truth or falseness. What seems important is to have access to as much factual information as possible and to distinguish that from the opinions about the implications of these facts. U.S. politician Daniel Moynihan is credited with the observation that you are not entitled to your own facts, only to your opinions. Even here, of course, one can encounter differences of opinion about what is factual and what is not.

This suggests that in the modern Internet environment, where anyone can say pretty much anything and others can read it, we are in need of processes that will help readers/viewers who wish to evaluate for factual value what they see and hear. It is notable that in the waning period of the political campaigns leading up to the U.S. presidential election, some media began providing fact-checking to go along with their reporting. The malleability of content on the Internet and its potentially ephemeral nature reinforces the belief that history is important and that its preservation is an important part of democratic societies.

This leads us to conclude that ways to preserve the content of the Internet in the interest of avoiding revisionist history may prove to be an important goal for technologists who worry about these things. This must be balanced against notions such as “the right to be forgotten” that are emerging in various jurisdictions, most notably in the European Union. There are legitimate reasons to remove harmful information that makes its way onto the Internet, such as child pornography and information that leads to identity theft, for example. Finding a balance that preserves the value of historical record, corrects false or incorrect information, and supports due diligence and critical thinking is a challenge for our modern information era. Google kicked 200 publishers off one of its ad networks in the fourth quarter, partly in response to the proliferation of fake news sites.

So, let’s turn to the above mentioned corporate and academic organizations and urge them to develop a universal standard for a trusted CFC (Cognitive Fact Checker) that can digest the Big Data (volume, velocity and variety) of the social media. Much like a spell checker autonomously watches over your shoulder as you type on a word processor, a CFC will look over your shoulder as you surf the Web for news ...prompting “Pants on Fire” warnings just as your spell checker alerts you to misspelled words. Yes, indeed, although Tim Cook stresses teaching critical thinking in schools, we need a critical thinking “cognitive assistant” while we tap the Web. 

We do, indeed, live in interesting times.